My man, Brad, and I have been practicing the Imago Dialogue since nearly the beginning of our relationship. Though the name sounds like a drama class exercise, it’s actually a simple map for communicating consciously that helps us each feel heard.
About four months into dating Brad, I was covering a wellness conference and had full press access. He said he’d come along, and I asked what he preferred: energy healing or a couple’s workshop, fully expecting he’d choose the former. “Couples,” he said immediately. Whoa! All I had wanted for ages was a guy willing to jump in all the way with me, happily, confidently. And now, he was here! Yay! And, of course: Yikes!
Off we went to a hotel ballroom in midtown Manhattan. Relationship masters and married couple Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, authors of the classic Getting the Love You Want, taught the workshop to about 50 couples. It was everyone from those in their seventies to people who looked like they wouldn’t usually be found anywhere near a personal growth class (I stereotype, therefore I am), to a few younger Brooklynites like us.
Harville and Helen talked about so much, but what stuck for us was the Imago Dialogue, a core tenet of their work. It’s based on the notion that all humans want is to be acknowledged, because most of us went through childhood with the sense that adults ignored and/or dismissed our core thoughts, opinions, and feelings—sometimes in the name of protecting us (“You’re not scared!”); to shield themselves (“I can’t deal with this!”); or to control us (“Wipe away those tears and smile!”).
The dialogue is designed to shoo away blame, shame, and criticism so we can feel safe and get heard, whether we agree with each other’s feelings or not.
Below is a very boiled-down version of the five steps of the Imago Dialogue, swiped and paraphrased from the Imago website. Please go here for more info, buy their book, or sign up for a workshop yourself!
Step 1: Make an Appointment. The Sender (or the Talker) says what s/he wants to discuss and asks if now is an OK time to share. If not, make a time—it’s the Receiver’s (Listener’s) job to help stick to it.
Step 2: Talk and Listen. The Sender talks, the Receiver listens. No interrupting (that includes eye-rolls)—you are listening, as open as possible. The Sender can start with phrases like: “I feel…” “I love…” “I need…” and “What’s bothering me is…”
Step 3: Mirror. The Receiver makes sure s/he heard everything by summarizing what has been said. Say it straight—no air quotes or editorializing. “I heard you say…” Then: “Am I getting it right?” Listen when corrected, then re-summarize. Ask: “Is there more?” If so, re-summarize. Then: “Did I get all of that?”
Step 4: Validate. To validate the mind of the Sender, the Receiver says something like, “You make sense to me, and what makes sense is…” ”I can understand that…” “given that…” and “I can see how you would see it that way because sometimes I do…” It’s about validating your partner’s world, his/her perspective, no matter what you think of it.
Step 5: Empathize. To validate the emotions of the Sender, the Receiver guesses at what the speaker might be experiencing: “I imagine you might be feeling…” and then, “Is this what you’re feeling?”
Then you switch roles.
I have so much more to say about this—like how this method created a beautiful foundation for my relationship with the man who is now my husband. About how it helps us untangle knotty problems, soothe hot triggers, and tend old wounds. It may seem like an artifice and a pain (it can be both), but what’s worse—an “unnatural” conversation set-up or an unresolved argument that escalates for months? Plus, Brad says it solves a problem that many men struggle with when their significant others talk (and talk and talk) about issues: What to do? He’s been taught not to try to fix it—but then what? Now he can just follow the script and we’re both happy.
At the end of the workshop one man raised his hand and said, “Tomorrow we’re calling off the divorce lawyers. We have hope.” Harville was touched, and he’s heard it many times. It turns out that sometimes the last thing we try is the simplest and most effective—listening and talking, for real.